Over the 30-plus years of my career, I have learned to ask one question whenever someone suggests a new idea or action to implement: For what purpose? 

The technique is related to the Japanese root cause analysis technique known as the “5 Whys.” The process is to ask “why” up to five times and use the answers to identify the root cause of an issue.

With the “For what purpose?” technique, we are not looking for the root cause of a problem; we are testing to determine whether the suggested idea/action and the desired outcome align. That is, will the idea/action really drive the desired outcome?

The responses to the “For what purpose?” question fall mostly into one of four categories.

Purpose can’t be clearly articulated: This tells us the idea hasn’t been properly thought through. It might sound like something someone thinks should be done or it might just be “thought of the week.” Look out for rationalizations such as, “company X did it and it worked for them.” These are a clear sign the action and purpose have not been fully thought through for your situation.

Purpose is a “motherhood statement”: A “motherhood statement” is a vague statement unlikely to be disagreed with. For example, someone may suggest procuring software and the answer to the “For what purpose?” question might be, “for inventory optimization.” It is hard to argue inventory optimization is not a good thing, but as a goal it is impossible to measure. The purpose and the desired outcome need to be more concrete.

Purpose doesn’t match action: It is rare that there is no correlation between action and purpose; however, the suggested idea or action might just be a part of the solution, not sufficient to drive the actual outcome. An example of this is would be when someone suggests investing in bar-coding as a way to improve spare parts inventory management. Correctly applied, bar-coding can certainly improve transaction accuracy and the speed of data processing; however, improving inventory management requires much more than this.

Purpose and action align: This is when you know the idea has merit and the action has been thought through. An example of this is when someone suggests developing a stocking policy for spare parts. If the answer to “For what purpose?” is “because our spare parts inventory is overstocked with high levels of obsolescence and this happens because our stock level decision-making is ad-hoc. A stocking policy will provide our team with guidance on how to make these important decisions in a consistent way.”

Did you notice that the response in which purpose and action align is also filled with detail? This doesn’t happen if you can’t articulate the purpose and it certainly is not a feature of motherhood statements. When the purpose and action don’t match there may also be detail, but people who understand the dynamics of spare parts inventory management (as opposed to generic inventory management) should be able to recognise gaps in the logic.

As with the application of the “5 Whys” technique, asking “For what purpose?” does take some practice to build as a skill. It also requires that you do not just accept the answer. It requires the application of critical thinking skills, the objective analysis and evaluation of the response in order to form a judgment. The results from applying this technique are worth the effort. Not only will this force the clarification of thinking, but it can also save you lots of time and money chasing actions that won’t deliver your desired outcomes. NP